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The Empty Chair: Two Novellas Hardcover – December 20, 2013

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Blue Rider Press; First Edition edition (December 20, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399165886
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399165887
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #827,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Wagner (Dead Stars, 2012) seemingly breaks down the fourth wall, inserting himself in these linked novellas as both author and participant, doing for the world of overzealous mysticism and its misguided followers what he has done in previous works for Los Angeles and the entertainment industry. In “First Guru,” a chance meeting in a hot tub at a gestalt retreat in Big Sur puts narrator Wagner in the position of listening to the confessions of Charley, a gay Buddhist who is channeling the lifestyle, if not the spirit, of Jack Kerouac as he takes to the road to escape the tragedy of his son’s suicide.“Second Guru” finds Wagner summoned to Manhattan to help a middle-aged former hippie relive her glory days in India, pursuing nirvana in the company of a ruthless killer and a charlatan shaman. While Wagner’s trademark scathing satirical skills are in full force thanks to his sprightly word play and jaundiced observations, his purposeful exploration of the nature and importance of storytelling takes him in a subtly nuanced new direction. --Carol Haggas


Casting himself as a story collector, Wagner links two novellas, two narratives separated in time yet bound by a common motif: the empty chair, where loss, grief and death are seated. 
Known for his gorgeously acerbic dissections of SoCal and Tinseltown, Wagner (Dead Stars, 2012, etc.) turns his eyes toward the spiritual, examining the wreckage of two souls. A self-labeled gay Buddhist tries to tell the story of his son’s suicide, looping back through memories and tangential details to avoid the final scene. Lushly embroidered with allusions to the Beat Generation, his tale takes on the rhythms of Gary Snyder’s poetry, the patter of Jack Kerouac’s prose. While awaiting the settlement of a lawsuit (he was one of the altar boys caught in the Catholic priest sex scandal), he joyously raised his son, Ryder, and watched his wife delve deeper into her practice, bringing Buddhism to schoolchildren and death row inmates alike. Ryder’s death sends them reeling, as they try to make sense of it through spiritual beliefs or storytelling itself. In the second tale, aging hipster Queenie examines her relationship with Kura, the man who saved her life after her affair with a gangster turned deadly in a 1975 Chicago nightclub. A master criminal intent upon becoming a saint, Kura longs to experience satsana at the feet of the Great Guru. Their pilgrimage to Bombay, however, wrests Kura away from Queenie, setting him on a path toward disappointment rather than enlightenment.  Twenty-seven years later, a single call from him reunites the pair on a ruinous quest to find the guru who disappeared.
Wagner meditates on our fundamental cravings for connections—both human and divine—and meanings—both personal and cosmic—with wit, compassion and a sharp eye for the lies we tell ourselves.
Kirkus Reviews, starred
In this new collection of two novellas by the author of Dead Stars, a fictionalized Wagner sits down with two disparate characters who have undergone traumatic spiritual journeys, interviewing them over the course of a few days. In “First Guru,” a gay man explains his love of Jack Kerouac, and narrates the story of his life, from being molested in a Catholic church to marrying a woman and having a child with her, to finally ending up where Wagner finds him, sleeping in and operating his book-van lending library. “Second Guru” concerns a woman, Queenie, on a trip to India, as she reconnects with her old flame, Kura, after battling with depression and the aftermath of an abusive relationship, in search of his former spiritual guide. The collection is aptly named, as the metaphor of the empty chair comes to mean radically different things for each of the protagonists and their journeys toward and away from Buddhism. Throughout the interviews, Wagner interjects descriptions of his subjects, lending believability to the format, and the dialogue is spot-on—especially when Queenie ruminates on her fantasies of self-obliteration. Ultimately a quiet, brooding collection, Wagner’s book deftly illustrates how the quest for spirituality and self-realization underscore one’s understanding of the purpose of life.
Publisher’s Weekly

“[R]emarkable…[The Empty Chair] would make a fine fictional companion to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s writings on spiritual outrage…The soul’s cry beneath that rage is the gold Wagner has mined here, and he delivers it to us with a beneficent and magisterial touch.”
—Dani Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review

“[The Empty Chair] demonstrates Mr. Wagner’s range as a writer, reminding us…that he possesses a fluent ability to move back and forth between the satiric and the sympathetic, the scabrous and the tender….The strange and terrible connection between the two tales that is eventually revealed not only reminds us of Mr. Wagner’s love of coincidence but also makes us ponder, as his characters do, big existential questions about fate (versus randomness), destiny (versus free will) and the patterning (or lack of patterning) in the universe.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“The novellas are absorbing on their own, but what really makes The Empty Chair a gem is how two people from completely different backgrounds could tell two true stories that are extraordinarily intertwined.”

“Few things make a story more difficult to tell than having a listener expecting to hear it….It's this contradiction, among so many others, that Bruce Wagner captures so elegantly in The Empty Chair. The book, split between two novellas, teems with gurus and neurotics, martyrs and perverts, but whatever their differences, nearly all of them are storytellers, too. What a shame for them, then, that someone is always listening—and what a joy for us to read.”
—Colin Dwyer, NPR
“[The Empty Chair] dare[s] to enter a sanctuary that few contemporary authors are willing to set foot in….what seems like witty digression about his beatnik idols is really self-conscious delay…Wagner’s real subject here is spiritual pride among the devout struggling toward Nothingness…His narrator has a wry sense of humor about this world of competitive enlightenment, but there’s no smirking when he finally arrives at what it costs a child to be infected with his parents’ metaphysical shtick.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World

“The sentences that run through [Wagner’s] fiction—including the two novellas paired in The Empty Chair— are supercharged with exotic phrases, twisted puns, far-flung idiom, and endless name-checks from Beat literature to Wile E. Coyote to “Soul Train” to Mark Twain. He’s got a crazy-brilliant command of language and culture….his verbal agility is mind-blowing….Wagner does a masterful job of letting his novellas harmonize with each other, one gaining resonance when compared to the other….And as much as The Empty Chair is about the impossibility of true and thorough enlightenment, it is also about the power of voice and storytelling.”
—Matthew Gilbert, The Boston Globe

“These interwoven tales made me think, about Gurus, spirituality in the West, and the quest for enlightenment vs. nihilism, heady topics indeed, and well worth taking on. Ultimately, even the empty chair is full – full of all the life that has passed through it….I do recommend the book, particularly to anyone interested in Eastern spirituality and Buddhism.”
—Ravi Chandra M.D., Psychology Today

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Veenstra on December 19, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The book consists of two stories of a spiritual journey each being a story that is compelling in its own right.

The stories are so well written that I often found myself entering the 'stream of consciousness' of the narrators, an effect that the beat writers so aspired to, when you forget everything around you and you are fully immersed in the flow of the story.

I was also delighted and intrigued how the 2 stories, their themes and imagery started to syncopate, bouncing off each other, creating a wonderful dual story universe that is inexplicably intertwined.

Hidden in the stories is something else, a message or feeling that is woven through it all. It is what stays with me, long after the end. I can only recommend to read it, notice how it stirs and re-awakens something inside.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Larry Hoffer on January 8, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I'd rate this 2.5 stars.

"If it were possible to hold all of the people's stories all of the time in one's head, heart and hands, there is no doubt that in the end, each would be unvanquishably linked by a single, religious detail."

In The Empty Chair, Bruce Wagner tells of the Buddhist spiritual journeys taken by two utterly disparate people. Both stories, which happens years apart from each other, are linked in a tenuous way which might strain your memory a little bit, and are told to a fictional Bruce Wagner.

The first novella is the story of an aging gay Buddhist in Big Sur, California. He has led a difficult life, having been repeatedly molested by a priest in his local church, which led him to experience panic attacks as an adult. But he pursued a somewhat romantic relationship with a woman who was enchanted by Buddhism, and had a son, who was the center of their universe. As his wife taught a basic form of Buddhism in prisons (including San Quentin) and then in schools, he raised their son as a stay-at-home father. But their lives were rocked when their 12-year-old son committed suicide, and he has been unable to settle down since that tragedy, traveling in a Volkswagen bus.

The second novella follows Queenie, a larger-than-life woman who was a wild child, sleeping around with dangerous men and taking drugs. She met Kura, a criminal who longs to become a saint, when he saved her life after she was attacked by a boyfriend outside of a nightclub. Kura rescued her, took care of her, and brought her to India on his search for his spiritual guru.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Amelia Gremelspacher TOP 500 REVIEWER on December 19, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book will haunt me for a long time. I doubt I will ever solve it. The title of this review is particularly apt. The book is labelled two novellas, yet the author is at pains to establish that the basis of the narratives are two stories told to him. The premise is that he had encountered these two "gurus" and was transfixed by their stories. The result is his own transcription with minimal editing.

The writing is in fact stylistically similar to the musings of a person talking about a memory of great import from the past. At times it takes annoying tangents of philosophy or detail that surely a fiction writer would expunge. Each guru has survived a soul scathing event set in the framework of "American Buddhism", that ravenous search for meaning. So here is my quandary. I cannot ignore the possibility of reality in these stories.

Wagner's trademark mix of the quirks of the famous literary and cultural figures on the scene is employed to great advantage. There is sly humor and skillful slight of perception. He makes the innocent comment that the stories "in the end each would be unvanquishably linked by a single, religious detail." In the next breath he notes that religion is too freighted with "sound and fury" to credit with these events. His portrayal of grief is deeply touching and undeniably genuine. The book is undeniably quirky and peppered with unabashed heresy. All this argues for the gift of an author crafting from fiction.

My most profound reaction has to be, "Gee Gidget, what's a girl to do? ". I hope you read this book and tell me what you think. In any case, this is a wonderful example of the mind reading that a good book can provide.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By robert f. levine on January 21, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Couldn't finish it. Seemed self indulgent and not incisive about the period or the characters. It did not have the complexity of a good novel.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Julie Sloane on January 15, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
These two novellas purport to be true stories selected by the author from many interviews he conducted and recorded. The sense that these are, indeed, real people is very strong in the first novella, but early in the second one I began to be aware of a stylistic similarity in the telling, and concluded that they are both fictional characters. For me, this detracted from the strength of the book. I persisted to the end for the sake of finishing, more out of discipline than pleasure.

In my opinion, the first novella is by far the better story, one that should be read as a cautionary tale for parents who attempt to transmit their religious passions to children. The book's mostly silent, listening author (Bruce Wagner) is the perfect medium to elicit our patience and trust as the tale unfolds; we feel we are being let in on something important. But in the second novella, the storyteller is not the main character but only a witness to the events she talks about. Behind a second layer of narrative the story became too distant for me. I got impatient in spite of Bruce's listening ear and wished he'd done a lot more editing. The stories link up at the end in a way that justifies their pairing, but the conclusion is empty, if not downright bleak.

Full disclosure: I have been fascinated by Buddhism for a long time, but lately my interest has started to fade. I thought this book would help me recover some of my former sense of purpose in the quest for enlightenment, but instead it has confirmed my disillusionment.
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